The question: I am iron deficient. What are the best foods to increase my iron level?
The answer: There are two types of iron in foods: heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is found in animal foods – meat, poultry, fish and eggs – and is absorbed and utilized the most efficiently by the body. Very good sources include red meat, liver, turkey, trout, sardines, scallops and clams.
Plant foods such as legumes, nuts, leafy greens and dried fruit supply non-heme iron, a form that’s less well absorbed. That’s because plant foods contain natural compounds called phytates, which bind to iron, reducing its absorption. Some of the best sources of non-heme iron include cooked spinach, raisins, dried apricots, lentils, chickpeas, lima beans, firm tofu and blackstrap molasses.
Luckily, there are some things you can do to enhance your body’s absorption of non-heme iron. For starters, eat some of your foods cooked (e.g. leafy green vegetables), sprouted (e.g. breads, grains and legumes) and fermented (e.g. tempeh), since these preparation methods release iron from phytates.
I also recommended including a source of vitamin C with meals. The acidity of the vitamin converts iron in food to a form that’s readily absorbed. Excellent sources of vitamin C include cantaloupes, citrus fruits, mangoes, strawberries, bell peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and tomato sauce.
If you’re a tea drinker, drink it between rather than during meals – tea contains tannins, compounds that inhibit iron absorption. Or add a little milk or lemon to your cup of tea; both inactivate its iron-binding properties.
Ready-to-eat breakfast cereals are also good sources of iron since they are fortified with the mineral. For instance, 3/4 cup of Shreddies has 5.4 milligrams of iron, almost one-third of the daily requirement (18 milligrams) for menstruating women. (Iron deficiency is common among premenopausal women who lose iron each month during menstruation.)
Depending on the extent of your iron deficiency, diet alone may not be enough to replenish your iron stores. Many of my clients need the help of an iron supplement. If this is the case, your doctor or dietitian will recommend an iron supplement to be taken usually for three to six months. It’s important to have your iron stores retested to determine whether you need to continue supplementation.
If you require an iron supplement, don’t take it with a calcium or magnesium supplement. These three minerals compete for absorption in the small intestine. If you take medications, ask your pharmacist if they interact with iron pills.
Send dietitian Leslie Beck your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail website. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.
The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.